Even on his stomach, Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne was too much for the Phoenix Coyotes.
Rinne returned to dominating form with 32 saves ù including one while laying on his back during a 5-on-3 power play late in the third period. His teammates upped the intensity as the Predators notched their first playoff shutout in eight years with a 2-0 win over the Phoenix Coyotes on Wednesday night in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinal series.
”You put a lot of pressure on yourself and it feels good to win this one and play a solid game,” Rinne said. ”It makes the series totally different now.”
Rinne got two opportunistic goals from teammates David Legwand and Mike Fisher midway through the first period, and that was all he needed as he turned the lackluster Coyotes away again and again to cut Phoenix’s series lead to 2-1.
After giving up nine goals on the road as the Predators fell behind 2-0 in the best-of-seven matchup, Rinne was rarely challenged until late when he made a series of incredible saves to secure his first playoff shutout and the first for the Predators since a 3-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings on April 13, 2004.
With key forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn suspended by coach Barry Trotz for what he hinted were curfew violations, the Predators responded by returning to the three keys that helped them to a milestone sweep of the Red Wings in this year’s first round: effort, opportunism and defense.
Trotz liked what he saw out of the Predators without those two contributors and said while it’s too early to make a final decision, he might keep the lineup the same Friday when the teams meet for Game 4 in Nashville.
”It’s very hard to change it if everybody is committed like they were,” Trotz said. ”It’s a statement. It’s a privilege to play in the NHL playoffs for the Stanley Cup.”
With Fisher and Martin Erat setting the tone early with physical play, the Predators took advantage of two early mistakes by the Coyotes to build a quick lead. Rinne, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy given to the NHL’s top goalie, made the goals stand up.
The change of venue seemed to energize Rinne and the Predators. With Charlie Daniels laying down a scorching version of ”Devil Went Down to Georgia” and fans tossing catfish on the ice, Nashville got back into the ”hockey tonkin”’ vibe that so flummoxed the Red Wings as Legwand and Fisher scored 66 seconds apart midway through the first period.
Legwand brought out the catfish when he capitalized on goalie Mike Smith’s mistake as he cleared the puck behind the net. Gabriel Bourque beat a defender to the puck in the left corner and centered a pass to Legwand, who wristed it past Smith at 8:10.
Fisher — Mr. Carrie Underwood for those who aren’t country music fans — followed that just over a minute later with a wrist shot past Smith. Erat started the chance by forcing a turnover in the right corner. He centered the puck to Sergei Kostitsyn, who passed up an open shot to feed Fisher for the 2-0 lead at 9:16.
Legwand also had an apparent goal waved off later in the period.
”We gave them that early energy, that early momentum,” Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said.
Though Phoenix outshot Nashville through the first two periods, Rinne wasn’t tested much. He had a shot go off the post in the first period and saw heavier traffic in the crease as the Coyotes shook off a sluggish start. But he never faltered after giving up five goals in Sunday’s 5-3 Game 2 loss — the Predators’ worst performance of the postseason — snapping Phoenix’s team-record streak of three consecutive road playoff wins and a run of three straight wins in Nashville overall snapped. The Coyotes had given up just four goals on the road in the playoffs before Wednesday.
”We know that we didn’t play well in Game 2, so for us it was kind of embarrassing, our effort,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. ”We knew we had to come out and play the way we’re capable of playing. You play good teams and you have to match their desperation, and we did that.”
Without Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, who were suspended for violating unspecified team rules, Nashville figured to lose some offensive power, but the defense more than made up for it.
Rinne finished by turning away several shots during a tense 41 seconds of 5-on-3 hockey late in the third period after penalties on Erat and Sergei Kostitsyn. He stopped two point-blank shots Radim Vrbata — including one in which he lifted his leg while laying on his stomach for a blind save — and stood tall after the Coyotes pulled Smith in the final 2 minutes for an extra skater.
”I think we have the momentum until about midnight tonight, then it starts all over again, and that’s how you’ve got to look at it because it can change in a heartbeat,” Trotz said. "It could have changed on that 5-on-3. They score two goals and we could be playing for a couple hours more.”
Notes: Bourque extended his Predators’ rookie playoff record to five points. … Legwand has 10 points in his last 12 playoff games. … Fisher leads the Predators with 38 career postseason points.